Over the weekend we lost a towering figure of cinema and American cultural history: George A. Romero, an artist whose work touched and inspired millions of lives– but none more than mine. More than mere vessels for cheap scares, many of Romero’s films, such as Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, double as sociopolitical commentary, tackling issues faced by both viewers contemporary to their release and modern fans, a fact to which many may be completely oblivious, but which is clear to me due to my fundamental and sophisticated understanding of Romero’s work and vision.
While Romero made many films (which I and I alone truly understand) exploring worlds other than those tainted by the risen dead, he once told NPR, “I have a soft spot in my heart for the zombies… they are multipurpose, you can’t really get angry at them, they have no hidden agendas, they are what they are. I sympathize with them.” I suppose he felt the need to plainly state what was completely, unmistakably obvious to me, as I’d intuited as much upon my first viewing of his films, in order to help set lesser fans on the path towards even a cursory understanding of his oeuvre.
Six months ago I awoke late at night to a rapping at my bedroom window and saw that it was Romero standing there. I opened my window and helped him through, into my bedroom. Once settled—perched on the corner of my bed—Romero asked if I’d been expecting him. I said that I had been, on some level.
“That’s because you and you alone understand me,” Romero said.
“That’s flattering, George,” I said. He stopped me and insisted that I call him Papa. I agreed that I would, and continued, “But Papa, what about your millions of fans?”
“I appreciate the fans,” Papa said, “but none of them get it the way you do.”
“But Papa,” I said, “what about the dozens if not hundreds of artists whose work is clearly inspired by yours?”
“Any influence I may had had on the culture at large was incidental,” Papa said. “Tell me. What is Night of the Living Dead really about?”
“Well,” I said, “at the end, Ben is killed by the police. Because he’s a black man in the South. It’s about racism.”
“And tell me,” Papa said, “What is Dawn of the Dead really about?”
“Well,” I said, “the zombies all break into the mall and walk through the stores trying on clothes and so on, almost like it’s muscle memory from their former lives. I’ve always assumed you were making a statement about a mindless consumer culture.”
“Exactly,” Papa said. There was a gleam in his eye. “You know,” he said, “the films, they’re all for you.”
“But Papa,” I said. “That can’t be. Night of the Living Dead was released more than a decade before I was born.”
Papa patted my knee. He removed a stack of photographs from his jacket pocket and handed them to me. I recognized the pictures as behind the scenes shots taken in the Evans City Cemetery where the film’s opening scenes were shot. The first few images were as familiar to me as my own beautifully toned, muscular legs. But as I looked on I discovered something I’d never noticed before. There, a little behind and to the left of Johnny Blair as he struggled with a zombie in order to buy his beloved sister time to escape, sits a stone bearing the inscription “All For Tom Batten.”
“But Papa,” I said. “Surely this image is somehow doctored.”
“It’s legitimate,” Papa said.
“But how? I don’t understand.”
“You don’t understand because you’re thinking,” Papa said. “Don’t think. Close your eyes, and feel.”
I closed my eyes. I heard crickets chirp in the yard. I heard Papa’s breathing. I heard my own heartbeat. I heard another heartbeat, and knew it was Papa’s, and then our hearts began to beat in time with one another.
“They’re all for you,” Papa said. “You, and no one else.”
I opened my eyes and stared into his and I cannot adequately describe what passed between us in that moment, because the language I’d need to articulate the experience faded from the human lexicon centuries ago, when our ancestors first came to see themselves as masters of the Earth instead of elements in a vast and complicated system of life, and shamanism gave way to industrialism, and notions of property and faith in Gods other than those found in wind and water and forest and stone.
“Thank you, Papa,” I said.
“No,” Papa said. “Thank you.”
He left. Our souls had for a moment become one, there was nothing left that we could say to each other that the other would not already know or anticipate.
He let me keep the photographs. They hang framed over my desk as I write this, beside one of the many postcards Martin Landau sent me in the final years of his life and galley pages of Cat’s Cradle revealing my first name spelled out by the first letter of the first word on each of that classic novel’s first six pages, a gift from Kurt Vonnegut in 2006. Last night Stan Lee appeared at my window and gave me the original script for the first issue of the Fantastic Four, which states that the serial number on the rocket the four protagonists ride through the field of cosmic rays that grants them their incredible powers is in fact the exact date and time of my birth, to the second.
One day I’ll frame the script and hang it there, with all the rest. One day, but not quite yet.
Not quite yet.